Is the American Public Irrational?

02 Jun 2016 8:56 AM | Mike Lillich (Administrator)

By Oren Levin-Waldman

Editor's note: This op-ed first appeared online in the Yonkers Tribune.

As rational actors we identify our goals and objectives, evaluate the different paths towards achieving them, and then we make a choice. In the marketplace, rational firms seek to maximize their profits while minimizing their costs. Consumers seek to maximize their utility, which means obtaining goods at the lowest cost. And workers seek to maximize their wages without having to sacrifice their leisure time.


n the political realm rational voters will vote for the candidate and/or political party whose platform will most maximize their interests. Therefore, if one group of voters who are poorly paid are promised more programs and/or higher wages, they will naturally vote for the candidate making those promises. Conversely, if another group of voters is promised more favorable business conditions so that they can profit more, then that is the candidate they will vote for.

What happens when voters are promised things for which they voted accordingly, and then those promises cannot be delivered because the political system militates against them? Do we then say that they acted irrationally? Consider the following scenarios. In the first, we have Bernie Sanders’ voters choosing a candidate because he promises to deliver free college education, to make Wall Street pay for its abuses, and to raise the minimum wage. All of his supporters are “progressive” who believe that big business in cahoots with the Washington establishment have been riding roughshod over the hard working middle class.


n the second, we have Donald Trump who has promised to make America great again by bringing back manufacturing, making it more difficult for foreign goods to come in and threaten American jobs, and by stopping the inflow of immigrants, especially those who come illegally, because they take American jobs. Of course, he has promised to build a wall along the southern border, to pursue a foreign policy of America First, and to make our allies pay for their own defense. His supporters also believe that private interests in cahoots with the Washington establishment have been riding roughshod over the interests of the hard working middle class.

Both camps ironically enough do share one thing in common, which is the belief that the political system, because it is in the pockets of special interests, has not been responsive to the will of the American people. Instead of public officials pursuing policies that the public wants, they simply ram policies down the throats of the voters. Then when polls show that there is actually great opposition to these policies, the standard refrain is that there was a failure in communication. In other words, there is no such thing as bad policy and those public officials who push these policies are never wrong.

We have to assume that even if one of these two were to become president, it is highly unlikely that Congress would pass the policies that are being promised. Does that mean that the voters who voted for them have acted irrationally? After all, they must be aware that in a system of checks and balances it is very difficult for presidential candidates to make good on their promises. But then again, the candidates are preying on the ignorance of the typical voter.

In truth, it would appear that there are multiple rationalities at work and perhaps in collision with one another. Voters vote the way they do because they are promised something. Politicians who need to raise millions of dollars for campaigns are also acting rationally when they put the interests of donors first at the expense of the masses. And groups within both parties who seek to deny both Sanders and Trump the nomination are also acting rationally because they seek to maintain their privileged position in the establishment hierarchy.

Still, one wonders how it is rational for working class individuals to vote for a billionaire who has absolutely no connection with them. And how is it rational for affluent “progressives” to support a candidate whose platform is laden with proposals aimed at punishing them for their success? Unless they believe that either candidate will succeed in blowing up the establishment that has effectively stripped them of a true democratic voice for decades now.

Both appear to have a populist message which resonates, even though they are coming from different directions. Both are appealing to angry voters who believe that the political system is non-responsive to the interests and needs of the middle class. After seeing middle class wages stagnate for four decades now, the decimation of labor market institutions, and the pursuit of trade policies that will only make monied interests wealthier at workers’ expense, voters understand there is little difference between the two political parties.

And yet, ironically enough, it is rational for the establishment on both sides of the aisle to hunker down and deny that both Sanders and Trump are galvanizing large segments of the electorate because the political system is not working. For the establishment to admit as much is to acknowledge that the establishment and politics as usual is really the problem.

Let’s see if we can get to the root of the problem. Wages have been stagnant and the manufacturing base that once made “America great” has been replaced with lower paying service sector jobs. Instead of labor market institutions that might have served to maintain wages in the face of greater globalization, the political class has maintained that workers need to be more flexible while the ratio between worker and CEO pay has gone from 40-1 to 500-1. Meanwhile, healthcare costs continue to rise and many are still without because nobody could deliver a single-payer system. Moreover, representatives in Congress are only responsive to those with money. Alas, the American public understands it has been had.

Granted, most typical voters do not understand the basics of supply and demand. But they do understand that when more unskilled workers are allowed in, or even more skilled workers allowed in on H-B1 visas, this will suppress wages. They understand that the political class could not care less about them. They may even understand that Trump is not likely to care about them any more than anyone in the past has or that Sanders will not be able to deliver on any of his real promises. But they are frustrated which is reflected in their support for them. What they do understand is that the establishment is now running scared, and that, in and of itself, may be a reason to support them. Are they irrational? No, not al all. They are experiencing a different kind of rationality.

Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Ph.D., Professor at the Graduate School for Public Affairs and Administration at Metropolitan College of New York, Research Scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, as well as faculty member in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. Direct email to:

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